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Supreme Court agrees to hear police records case

In a case closely watched by local governments and law enforcement, a Virginia county is hoping to overturn a ruling allowing a former criminal defendant to get access to a police officer’s personnel records.

To say the least, Adam Ewing scored a major blow in May using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The James City County man – who claimed he was roughed up by a county police officer – persuaded a circuit judge to order the release of the officer’s employment records.

Retired Judge Robert W. Curran also awarded Ewing’s lawyers $5,000 in attorney fees and $206 in costs.

Local government groups howled in protest. They say Curran’s order “upsets the careful balance” between the privacy interests of police officers and the public’s right to obtain public records. In a friend of the court brief, local government advocates say the decision – if allowed to stand – “will create a substantial, daily burden on officers and their agencies.”

The county appealed and the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed to hear the appeal without waiting for a writ panel hearing.

The case arose from a 2011 traffic stop. Ewing skirmished with the county on three fronts after he claimed an officer used excessive force, according to The Virginia Gazette. The prosecutor dropped an obstruction-of-justice charge, and Ewing then filed a civil suit against the officer and requested the officer’s employment records using the Freedom of Information Act.

The driver’s lawyer argued a FOIA provision that appears to allow the release of police personnel records trumps another provision deeming personnel records confidential. Judge Curran agreed, and also ordered the police chief to provide the identity of all adults arrested or charged by the officer during 2011.

The records were not released pending the appeal, according to Andrew T. Bodoh, an attorney for Ewing.

UPDATE: The story above was corrected Feb. 8 to reflect that Ewing was charged with obstruction of justice, not a traffic offense, and that his lawsuit was filed against the officer and not the county.

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